Although I’ve been playing the viola for quite a while, and have previously blogged about it, there are stages to becoming a violist. I picked up the instrument as an adult after a long break from music, thinking that I might have an smoother re-entry into the stringed-instrument-playing world as a violist than a violinist. Continue reading Merry Pranks: Becoming a Violist
The first video of last night’s concert is out, and I’m in it. There, framed between the soloist and the conductor, you can see me in the orchestra’s viola section.
My musical life since moving to CA has been a little “all over the place.” So far I’ve taken this year to sample different orchestras and different instruments. Do I want to play violin, viola, or both? Which orchestra has the best fit for me with respect to rehearsal venue, concert venue, conductor, repertoire, and community?
First in a series of blogs about my attempts to learn how to play by ear on the violin . . .
Back in the 1970s, when I started learning violin in public school, the first piece we learned for performance was Twinkle, and we played it in that year’s Holiday Concert. Before the group performance, a few of us had lines to say. My line went something like this:
“Thousands of years ago, people used music as magic . . . (lost in the mists of time) . . . played different kinds of instruments.”
I don’t remember much else from this concert: just this small part of my lines, and none of the actual experience of playing Twinkle with a group of 4th grade public school beginners in front of an audience.
In spite of the days getting shorter, it’s still warm and sunny out. It just doesn’t feel like time for a concert yet. But it is.
This was my first concert in California, with the Nova Vista Symphony. The West Valley College Theater is not Symphony Hall, but it is a nice theater, with good acoustics and an air of excitement. It’s also not the church I’ve been used to playing in for the past 8 years. Gathering in the theater were the orchestra members, veterans, an honor guard, a chorus, and service dogs from Canine Companions, who are in training to help wounded vets.
I’ve been very impressed with how well thought-out this season is, the orchestra’s 50th. The whole season has a theme (Season of Heroes), and each concert itself has a sub-theme. This concert’s was a tribute to those who have served in the armed forces. Our conductor, Anthony Quartuccio, gave a pre-concert talk about the music, and then Mr. Tuttle introduced the service dogs from Canine Companions, the co-sponsor for the concert.
Everyone knows two of the pieces on the program, Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Beethoven’s Eroica, and I’ve written about my experiences with those pieces before, so I’d like to say a little bit here about the other major piece we played, “Symphony for the Sons of Nam” by James Kimo Williams. Williams is a Vietnam Veteran, and a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. He wrote the piece about his own experiences in Vietnam. It is intended to have 4 chapters, but only 2 have been completed.
The two chapters are written in a wide variety of styles: ominous, elegiac, martial, triumphant. It begins with a snare drum and a rousing fanfare-like melody in the brass. One section, depicting the jungle, is marked to be played “ominously” and it doesn’t disappoint. The sheet music itself looks plenty ominous already. A steady drumbeat of 16th notes starts low in the cellos and spreads to the violins and woodwinds, the pattern rising in pitch until it hits a high A and slides back down in a siren-like portamento. A beautiful violin solo memorializes fallen soldiers.
You can listen to it here (not us playing), accompanying Williams’ own photos from his time in Vietnam:
In the past several years I have been pleasantly surprised by how listenable and relevant the contemporary orchestral music is that our conductors choose. It’s probably past time to get over my lingering hesitations against it. I was glad to have been introduced to this piece at this concert. I thought it worked especially well to have the juxtaposition of a contemporary work on the same program with something so well known and loved as the Eroica. I’m guessing there were some in the audience who enjoyed the Williams even more than the Beethoven.
My feelings playing the Beethoven were complicated. It’s one of my favorite symphonies, possibly the favorite, although its melodies are not necessarily as beautiful as those of the 9th, or the 6th, or the 7th. It’s a cliche, but I still marvel at how I can leave everything behind, fly 3000 miles, and walk into a room full of strangers whom I’ve never seen before, and in a few short weeks, still do something as complex as play the Eroica with them. Are we all–the Greater Buffalo Youth orchestra, the Belmont Music Festival orchestra, the Nova Vista Symphony–and all the orchestras back to the private orchestra of Prince Lobkowitz, at the castle Eisenberg where the Eroica first premiered — still all somehow playing together through the ages, linked by this universal language of music?
The problem is, when you start thinking about things like that in the middle of the concert, you can lose your place in the music. (Or at least I can). The need for concentration really never lets up. I am curious what other people, including professionals, think about when they’re playing. Just the nuts and bolts of putting the music together? Or is it more?
My family came to the concert too, and afterwards, while we were enjoying the nice reception with Halloween cookies, peppermint bark, coffee, and other goodies, and more visiting with the puppies, we noticed this tree. So climbable, but not while wearing long black.
When I first performed this symphony, I was in the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra. I was 15, and it was like an initiation rite: now I too would be able to say I’d played “Eroica”. The title was one of the attractions: Italian, exotic, even a little naughty if you think there might be supposed to be a “t” in the middle. I imagined I heard Boromir blowing his great horn in the 2nd movement. And of course there are the mythic stories about this symphony: Beethoven’s tearing up its dedication to Napoleon in protest, the Boston Symphony’s last-minute performance of the Funeral March in the face of unthinkable tragedy.
The second time I performed this symphony, I was an adult blogger on violinist.com. It was a whirlwind-quick festival over Christmas vacation, with a young, creative—heroic—conductor as the inspiration. I dusted off the old memories and was surprised and pleased at how well it all came back.
The third time I performed this symphony . . . well, I haven’t gotten there yet. We have 3 more rehearsals, which, if you think about it, isn’t that many. Yet, I still feel like I’m the muddy middle of things. I’m doing okay with respect to getting basic rhythm, intonation, and dynamics, and with re-awakening the muscle memory, but I’m still . . . struggling.
Back in my old orchestra, I was the concertmaster. I didn’t always mention that; in fact I usually just talked about “the orchestra I play in . . . “ unless it was a situation where I thought it would help me, or the orchestra, such as when I was dealing with publicity or finding a concert venue for orchestra-associated chamber groups. Then, I was the concertmaster, I was in charge, I was the one to deal with. I had the support of the conductor. I practiced my music, I tried my best to standardize the bowings, I served on the Board of Directors. I stood in front of the group and asked for the tuning A to start the concert. None of this stopped me from feeling like an impostor sometimes. Since I had never been to music school, since I had quit the violin twice, and since it was a non-audition volunteer group, I hadn’t earned the position the way most people do. I believe I did earn it over time, as a steady, conscientious presence who believed in and came to love the orchestra like a family. But I didn’t wear the mantle lightly, and sometimes I felt a little guilty enjoying it. After all those teenage years spent kicking around the back of county, state, and youth orchestras, and of turning the concertmaster’s pages in high school, a dream that I hadn’t even realized I’d been nurturing, came true in middle age.
And now it’s over.
During my time as concertmaster, I thought I was appropriately deferential to the conductor, and appropriately considerate of suggestions from the rest of the section (and other sections). I was small-c-conservative and mostly stuck to the printed bowings and took passages “as it comes” unless I had a good reason to do otherwise. Once I figured out a bowing I stuck with it and played it the same way from rehearsal to rehearsal, again, unless I had a good reason to do otherwise, and then the change was announced. My leadership style, if I could be said to have one at all, was not in-your-face, not heroic. I didn’t have strong musical opinions because I really didn’t think I had the right to have them.
Well, apparently, I was wrong about that and probably other things too. There’s nothing like the back of a first violin section to bring out the opinionatedness in all of us. For example, I have to admit, sheepishly, that I do not follow someone else’s bowings very well. For 7 years I’ve been used to doing what I want and expecting everyone else to follow me. And when I look up, I expect to see the conductor’s smiling face, not someone else’s bow going the opposite direction from mine. I find myself grumbling silently—up bow? There? WTF, are you kidding me? Oh, yeah, ok, that’s fine. Oops. I’ve been making liberal use of my pencil—and its eraser—in rehearsal.
In Eroica, though, my opinionatedness seems to focus on something different: interpretation. I remember now that I did have a policy as concertmaster that was not universally loved. I always told my section to play chords divisi, the notes divided up between two players on a stand, unless it was explicitly marked “non-div” or unless the conductor said otherwise. This started as a carryover from high school and youth orchestra days, but I still agree with it in principle. I think that symphonic chords, at least when played by a non-professional orchestra, sound better when played divisi: cleaner, better in tune, more together, and less crunchy, because players each only have 1-2 notes to worry about, but all notes are heard in the audience. Playing chords divisi also works to prevent a phenomenon that I personally dislike (and here is my opinionatedness again rearing its ugly head): violinist showoffy-ness. But in the current performance, not only are we supposed to play all the chords non-divisi, but he’s having us do a lot of down-bow retakes, another technique that I prefer to use sparingly.
I want to stop grumbling, even silently. I’m new here and I know it’s not my place to grumble. But I still don’t like the heaviness that these techniques bring to the piece. The concertmaster says it’s what Beethoven would have wanted, a reason I fully respect, if true. But is it true? How can we know?
Beethoven’s Eroica might be the most talked- and written-about symphony in the history of classical music. I did a little internet research and I found a number of cool things that made writing this blog take a long time but didn’t answer my question: 1. The Eroica Riddle: Did Napoleon Remain Beethoven’s Hero; Beethoven’s taking away the dedication to Napoleon may have been motivated more by practical and financial reasons, than by democratic disillusionment with a self-proclaimed emperor. 2. Norman Bates listened to Eroica in the Hitchcock movie, “Psycho;” and 3. The opening chords in Eroica can be, and have been, played many different ways, from short to long to bright to deep, at different tempos and even with different pitches, if you include historical recordings.
This last project, in particular, drives the point home that everyone has an opinion, they’re all different, and maybe that’s actually part of the fun. So this is mine. Yes, the Eroica ushered in a new symphonic era. It was unique, and revolutionary. It threw off shackles, and Prometheus became unbound. But it didn’t completely lose touch with its classical roots, either. Underneath the unexpected chord changes and rich orchestrations, there is still a framework that connects it with Mozart, Haydn, and those who came before. There is still room for lightness, even delicacy, in the Eroica. There are always going to be the myths, and there is always going to be someone who comes along and points out that it is really more complicated. Than that.
One of the things I miss most about my life in Belmont is the Philharmonic Society of Arlington. I was the creator and admin of the group’s Facebook page, so I can recite this by heart: “The Philharmonic Society of Arlington, Inc., established in 1933, consists of three performing groups, The Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra, The Arlington-Belmont Chorale, and The Arlington-Belmont Chamber Chorus.” Yes, you read that right: 1933, which makes it older than many professional symphony orchestras. The orchestra performed a mix of old favorites and premieres by local, living composers. We also provided playing opportunities for a diversity of musicians, from adult starters and re-starters, to professional music teachers, to up-and-coming Young Artists’ Competition winners.
I don’t feel up to recapping the last 8 years of my time there right here right now, but I blogged about a lot of it while it was happening, from the first rehearsal, to becoming concertmaster, to my first real solo with an orchestra in the Tchiakovsky “Mozartiana” suite, my stand partner who became a chamber music partner and one of my best friends, a fond farewell to a beloved senior conductor, and finally a new start with a fresh face on the podium.
I don’t think it really sank in until this morning, though–until I shed a few tears here at the computer–that that chapter of my life is over. Tonight, the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra has the first rehearsal of its 82nd season, and it will be without me.
When I told people that I was moving, I got plenty of recommendations for orchestras–so many, in fact, that I wasn’t sure what to do with them all. I felt overwhelmed. Many of the recommendations centered on the conductor, which I understand, since the tone that the conductor sets is very important. Names I don’t know, don’t recognize . . . I can google them and find out how many awards they’ve won and where they’ve studied, I can see which orchestras have recorded CDs, who has the best reviews, and who has the most professional-looking website. I can see where they rehearse and how far that is from my house. But none of that was helping.
Way back when we were first talking about moving, I just looked on the web for orchestras that rehearsed in the general area of Mountain View and Sunnyvale. I found one called the Nova Vista Symphony. I liked the name immediately: I pictured standing on a mountain and looking out into one of the many valleys around here with their green (or brown) rolling hills. I also liked the fact that they played with a chorale sometimes and had a Young Artists’ Competition. They had the right number of concerts–not too many, not too few–and a mix of repertoire, both familiar and new, with different types of challenges. The website said they had auditions, and when I inquired I was told I should prepare 1 fast piece, 1 slow piece, and a 2-octave scale. I took this seriously and started preparing. I figured a 3-octave scale would be fine too.
Not sure which instrument I wanted to play, I thought about viola again. I brought my viola with me on the plane and shipped my violin, because I couldn’t carry on both instruments. I practiced the viola in the guest apartment we were staying in while we waited for our furniture to arrive so we could move into the house. I played the 3rd movement to the Anton Stamitz viola concerto in D, and recorded it for the Adult Starter and Restarter Facebook group. I wrote about my viola as a cherished object for a blogfest that I was trying out. I met up with a buddy from the Facebook group, and we tried to play some chamber music, as well as sight-read the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia and the Barber Adagio in his large fencing studio in Redwood City with You Tube accompaniment projected on the wall.
The furniture, and the violin, finally arrived, and life kept accelerating. Our kids started school already on August 17. My daughter was asked to switch to viola in school orchestra and she has taken up the challenge. She needed a viola to practice at home, and so I loaned her mine. I also volunteered to be an assistant soccer coach to get my 12-yo son a spot on a team. Team practice schedules reduced the number of hours available for violin and viola, and conflicted with rehearsals of the South Bay Philharmonic, another group I had been considering, Through all of this, I heard no more about an audition, until last week. I got an email from the personnel manager of the Nova Vista Symphony saying that I had enough experience they didn’t need to audition me, and the first rehearsal was a week from then, i.e. last night. They included a list of the repertoire, which included both the William Tell Overture, and Eroica, two of my favorite pieces of all time.
I could interpret this in different ways–after all, not everyone wants to always be playing old favorites that they’ve played before–but in this time and place, it felt right. In this strange and wonderful and horrible season where everything is slippery, and is changing too fast, and I’m grieving one too many losses and goodbyes, it felt like coming home to see and hear and be part of these pieces again. I brought my violin and my little folding stand, and parked it there in the back of the firsts, shook the rust out of my fingers, and said hello to my old friends.